Beating Breast Cancer – Part two – continued

“I’ve helped people, counseling them and every time I talk to somebody about going to have this done, they want to see my breasts. I don’t mind doing that because I feel like I’m helping somebody when there was no help for me, it was a long time ago and there was no magazine articles or anything to help us. And we talk a lot more about it, so there is a lot more help out there for us now. I didn’t even know about the National Breast Cancer Foundation and now I help with National Breast Cancer.”In the second such call to all women (and men) Julie pleas “We have to find a cure, we have to. That’s why I’m helping because I feel as though I am on a mission to find it for my family. I just feel as though it ‘s my mission now to get a cure, so that my future generation will never be affected like we were as a family. My daughter whose 19, we talk about it, but we don’t go on and on about it. If she wants to come to me about something, we’ll talk about it, but I feel that she’s so young and she’s such a happy young lady, that she really needs to enjoy her youth and I don’t want her to have any pressures at all. It might never happen to her. We will get genetic testing for her, but when she’s older, when she’s ready.”

“I’m over it all and I tell you, your life changes,” says Julie of her recovery and renewed love of life. “You just make yourself more positive about things. I actually wrote a list of things that if I got well – I was sitting in a park outside the hospital, I was sitting near some flowers, they were gardenias, because it was October. And I picked one and smelled it and thought ‘If I get to smell these flowers for the rest of my life, I’m going to be so lucky.’ It really made me realise how fragile life can be and how we have to really look at our lives differently, if we go through something like this.”

“We suffer so much when we are going through it, we want our lives to be normal again and sometimes you don’t get that chance,” she says acknowledging the over 2,600 women who lose the battle with breast cancer each year. “I go that chance to have a wonderful life and my life is the best life I could ever ask for. To me, I don’t care if I have a sore toe or whatever, as long as I’m on this earth, then I’m happy. It just makes you think of reality.”

Julie’s experience with a life threatening illness was certainly life changing, in the best way, but perhaps the real tragedy is that it takes a personal crisis of this magnitude to make people rethink what’s important.

“I made a list when I found out that I was well again, a list of what I wanted to do in this world. They weren’t things that I would say were expensive things. I just wanted to go out and walk Manly Dam – I’d never done that. Or go and do things that I’d thought about but never done them and thought, ‘One day I’ll do that?’ Just walking down Manly Beach at sunset. So I drop things now and I do these things because I don’t want to waste a minute of my life now,” says Julie of her renewed desire to embrace the simple things in life.

And while Julie has certainly had more than her share of pain and misery, her philosophical approach to life allows her to focus squarely on the important things, and with a new positivity. “It’s made me more aware of things in my life and it’s made me a much better person. I don’t get so stressed out, I gave up my job and I work from home and I work part-time with my husband and he works from home, so we’re here all the time for our children. Crystal is 19 now and Andrew is nearly 15 but life has changed a lot for us. We re-evaluate our life probably once a year and think how can we better it by doing things or getting rid of things. It just makes you a much better person and I think that my husband is a much better person for it too. He’s been through it as well, so it’s made him a better person too.”

Her experiences with cancer throughout her life have become the driving force behind Julie’s self-confessed crusade, to raise awareness about breast cancer and to help, in any way possible, find a cure. We cannot emphasis enough the importance of ongoing breast health checks. If you are unsure about the technique ask your doctor to demonstrate it – it takes a few minutes and could save your life, like it did Julie’s.

“Check regularly because that is the most important part and to seek advice straight away. If you find a lump, or an indent or whatever, you go straightaway and do something about it. Mine was detected so early because I was on the ball and I didn’t leave it. And that’s why I’m here.”

By Sally Schofield

May 9, 2002

Beating breast cancer – part two

In part one of Julie Barter’s story we learned that Julie, like her mother and grandmother before her, had developed breast cancer. In this part, we follow Julie on her courageous journey of survival and through her treatment and recovery.

“I had both of my breasts removed,” says Julie who, while having cancer only in her right breast opted for this most radical treatment. Presented with various alternatives including a lumpectomy to remove the cancer (and her nipple) Julie decided to have both breasts removed and rebuilt. “Reconstruction which was the most amazing thing that I could have possibly had done,” she enthuses about the procedure that restored her curves – and confidence. I can’t resist the urge to find out whether she asked for an extra cup size in the reconstruction?

“I did! I did!” laughs Julie, whose ability to talk with such poignant honesty about breast cancer and her treatment in magazines, newspapers and on radio is helping women around Australia understand this disease and all it’s effects.

“I had fed both my babies, for 12 months, both of them because I wanted to give my children every chance of the best and I thought ‘Right, let’s feed them for that long.’ And of course, my boobs were sort of looking down at the ground for that reason. They were sweet little things, but nothing that I could say ‘Oh wow! I’m going to lose these!” says Julie, reflecting on her decision to have a double mastectomy.

“I finished reconstruction a year after I had my breast removed and I felt like I was losing everything. I had nothing left, in fact my little boy said to me I’m a ‘she-man.’ And it was just a little joke with him, but it made me feel ‘Oh, my gosh, I haven’t got much left that’s a womanly thing!’ With having breast cancer and having reconstruction, I am so happy I had reconstruction, I don’t think I would have coped so well without reconstruction. It has made me a much more positive person. I always say that my plastic surgeon who did my breasts is my creator because she created me again. It’s like a work of art. ”

“I’ll never forget the day I came home after having the final part when they put the implants in and I came home from hospital. It was my birthday. Megan Hassal, who is my plastic surgeon, said to me ‘Go home, it’s your birthday.’ So I went home for my birthday and we had a lovely barbecue out the back and I had my boobs out showing everyone, it was like the unwrapping of the birthday present! I was so excited! I was just thrilled with what I had, I mean when you go through all that, and it’s so devastating and you’re so petrified when they unwrap your breasts to see what you’ve got, and when they actually unwrapped them I thought ‘Ooh, they’re too small!’ Of course I was lying down and when they sat me up there was two lovely round melons! So I flashed them. I don’t know how many times I flashed them to people,” says Julie.

May 7, 2002

Beating Breast Cancer

Julie Barter, cancer survivor

Did you know…

  • Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer affecting women in Australia
  • Early detection is the best method for increasing survival from breast cancer
  • One in 11 Australian women develop breast cancer before the age of 75
  • About 10 per cent of breast cancers occur in women with a family history
  • About 10,000 Australian women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year
  • 2,600 women die of breast cancer each year
  • One in 24 female deaths are due to breast cancer
  • Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in Australian women

Don’t be a statistic. Check your breasts regularly. It could save your life.

Julie Barter survived breast cancer. This is her story.

“My grandmother was first diagnosed when she was 65 and I was 13,” begins Julie, a charming confident women from Sydney’s Northern Beaches. “I didn’t really have a great understanding of what was going on at that age, I knew that my grandmother was sick. That was pretty devastating for my family ? it was a long, lingering death and while my mother was nursing my grandmother with breast cancer, my mother found out that she had breast cancer as well. So they were both having chemotherapy at the same time and it was pretty horrific. We lost my grandmother to cancer when I was about 22,” says Julie. “I realised that it was a bit odd that both my mother and my grandmother had this cancer. We’ve done a family tree and the history is pretty bad. If it’s not ovarian, it’s breast cancer in the family,” says Julie of the devastating disease that has affected her family for generations.

“I actually never thought I’d get it. My mother never really spoke to me, never worried me about it, but she always reminded me to do self-examination checks,” says Julie. “We went through watching Mum have radiotherapy and chemotherapy and I stayed with Mum while she was having all this. I was newly engaged. We got married and I started having my family and it must have been when I was 31, I got my first lump,” reveals Julie of her shocking discovery. “Our children were small and I went to a specialist and he basically said to me that our family history was horrific and that to be prepared in case this was cancer. And I had never really thought of it, I didn’t ever think I’d ever get it. Of course, that lump came back benign. But I had prepared myself, because the doctor had prepared me, for cancer. It was a benign cyst, I was very lucky then,” says Julie of her first but sadly not her last breast lump.

“When I was 32 they found another lump and I had that one removed. Then when I was about 34 I had another lump removed ? they were all benign and all fine. So when I came to a fourth lump I thought, ‘It’s the same,’ she says. “In fact, the first time I had it done, I was just distressed over it all that when it came to this lump, I basically didn’t even say anything to my friends, I kept it very quiet. I thought ‘I’m going in for a lump, you know, I’ll have it out, I’ll be home and back at work the next day.”

“It was a Thursday and I went into hospital to have it out and I remember being more concerned about a lady in the next room ? she was chatting to me and she was going to theatre ? she had a lump the size of a golf ball! I said to my mother-in-law ‘That poor girl, that poor girl, she’s having such a big lump removed and look at mine, a little tiny thing, what am I worrying about?’

“When I came out of theatre after having that done, my specialist was holding my hand, but it was a different specialist than I’d had for the other three. So I thought she’s just a lovely, caring lady. Maybe she had some idea, I don’t know, of what my lump was,” says Julie of her intuition in retrospect, “but I went home.”

“I was going to get the results on Monday and I never worried about it the whole weekend, I was more worried about going back to work! And Monday morning I rang work and told them I’d be back tomorrow morning and then I thought I’d better ring the specialist and just confirm that everything’s fine,” says Julie of her understandably indifferent, given her history of benign lumps, attitude towards her most recent lump removal. But everything was not OK. “She said it was cancer.”

April 30, 2002

Beating Breast Cancer – continued

Despite this tragic news and the events that followed Julie can still recall a funny incident leading up to moment when she was told her devastating results.”Mum and I were cleaning the house that morning, because Mum was staying with us for a holiday and I said to Mum ‘I’m just going to make a quick phone call to find out the results’ blas? as anything, thinking it’s fine. I went into my daughter’s bedroom and I was standing up and my mother accidentally pulled the cord out to the phone. This poor doctor was just about to say the word and the phone went dead,” she laugh remembering the moment just before her life changed forever. “I ran into Mum and said ‘What’s happened?’ and she said ‘Oh look darling, I’m sorry I pulled the cord out!’

“When we look back at this it’s funny? Oh my god, the poor doctor was going to just tell me the results! I was just having a bit of a giggle with my mum after this and I went back into the room to get the results and my mother was behind me. When I heard the results, my face said it all to my mother. My mother just collapsed. I collapsed, but my mother was worse than I was. She fell apart, because she felt like she’d given me this disease. It was just devastating for her as a mother to have to watch her mother and her daughter going through this disease and she knew what I was going to have to go through,” says Julie of her darkest hour.

“We rallied together, but I actually had to support my mother for the first few days because my mother couldn’t cope. Her clock stopped for a period of three days. She couldn’t control her emotions and she didn’t want to talk to anyone and basically gave up for a few days until we said to her ‘Come on Mum, we’ll get through this together. We’ve done it before and we’ll get through it again,” says Julie, her strength of will and determination that saw her battle life threatening cancer evident from the start.

In what is perhaps one of the saddest moments in Julie’s moving story, her mother’s devastation on hearing her daughter’s news was so debilitating that she was unable to accompany her daughter to hospital. “Basically when it came to me going to hospital, my mum couldn’t go with me. It was too distressing for her. My husband and my mother in law came with me. My mother in law had been on every trip I?d been to the hospital so it was just another one for her to go on,” she says.

“That was a very emotional time because when I was going to theatre, when that trolley comes for you to take you off to theatre, it’s horrendous, it’s like you’re going to Hell. And that’s where I felt like I was going and I felt that there was going to be no next day for me. I wanted to give up at this stage. I just thought ‘This is such as sad thing and why is it happening to me? I haven’t done anything wrong in my life? Why? Why? Why? It’s not fair.’

“You’re so angry. And the threat of being taken away from your family is the most horrific thing for me. That was the threat to me. I knew that Mark [Julie?s husband] would get on with his life, he was a man and he was a strong man. But my children weren’t that strong,” confesses Julie in a flood of emotion as she remembers the fear she felt at the thought of leaving her young children motherless.

Julie suddenly interrupts her account with an urgent plea to all women. “I just want to say something. My cancer was detected very early because of research. Thanks to research my life was saved. Without that I wouldn’t be here today.”

Read the second part of Julie’s remarkable story on SheSaid next week as we follow her through her treatment and recovery, and look towards the future.

In the meantime, support breast cancer research this Mother’s Day by participating in the Women In Super ‘Mother?s Day Classic’ held in Sydney and Melbourne. Proceeds from the largest charity-focused fun run in Australia go to the National Breast Cancer Foundation’s research projects. For more information about information on the race see The Mother’s Day Classic web site or call the National Breast Cancer Foundation on 02 9235 3444.

By Sally Schofield

April 30, 2002